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Prove it, Ravens, by beating Jags

THE BALTIMORE SUN

OK, PUT THE CORK ON the champagne bottles and pop the remaining balloons. The party is over.

It's time for a reality check.

The Ravens' 16-0 win against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday was a nice little accomplishment, but if the Ravens really, really want to send a statement to the rest of the league (and impress yours truly) about being a playoff-caliber team, then beat Jacksonville on Sunday at PSINet Stadium.

Or beat the Jaguars in a Food Lion parking lot. Or at Herring Run Park. Anywhere, just beat them.

"I know what you mean," said Ravens defensive end Rob Burnett. "Our frustration with this team goes way back. Sunday is our barometer game. They've had our number and still do until we prove otherwise. They have dominated us just like Pittsburgh."

The Pittsburgh thing ended Sunday at Three Rivers Stadium, where the Steelers once owned the Browns/Ravens. But not anymore. The Ravens have won two straight there, including a thorough whipping on Sunday, when they held the Steelers to 223 yards of offense, including 8 yards rushing by The Bus, Jerome Bettis, who was stalled a number of times at the line of scrimmage.

But let's also be honest. The Steelers are a franchise heading south fast. They have no quarterback, no offensive line, no cornerbacks and a coach, Bill Cowher, without a clue. They have lost 16 of their past 22 games, and in Monday morning's paper, the Pittsburgh writers were using a line similar to the one we have used in Baltimore three of the past four seasons: Same Old Steelers.

If the Ravens don't win Sunday against Jacksonville, they will be the Same Old Ravens. They have lost all 10 games to the Jaguars, two of them as the Cleveland Browns when Jacksonville was an expansion team.

If the Ravens lose to Jacksonville (14-2 last year) Sunday, no one will believe they are a bona fide contender. If the Ravens lose to Jacksonville again, Compu Coach and his crew will be all smack and no action.

Until they beat Jacksonville, the team will keep drawing Beasley Reece as their TV announcer.

Oh no ...

"We have to be a little careful that we don't overreact to the importance of this game, but it is clearly important to this franchise to beat Jacksonville if we want to step to the next level," said coach Brian Billick. "Jacksonville is one of the top teams in the AFC. Until we beat the Jacksonville Jaguars, we cannot say we're at the next level.

"Until we beat Jacksonville, we can't think of ourselves as truly a championship-caliber club," he said. "Jacksonville has been kind of a monkey on the organization's back, and we can't hide from it."

The Ravens have lost every way imaginable to Jacksonville. Six of the games have been decided by a field goal or less and seven by seven or fewer points. One time Jacksonville beat the Ravens, 29-27, after quarterback Eric Zeier tripped on Jonathan Ogden's leg attempting a two-point conversion on a draw play with 1:10 left in the game.

Another time, quarterback Mark Brunell scored a touchdown with 41 seconds left for a 30-27 win, and then there was the time Mike Hollis kicked a 34-yard field goal in overtime for a 28-25 Jaguars victory.

Last year's losses were the most frustrating. On Nov. 14, the Ravens held Jacksonville to a record-low 132 net yards, but Hollis kicked what proved to be the game-winning 28-yard field goal midway through the third quarter for a 6-3 victory.

Two weeks later, the Ravens took a 16-7 lead into the fourth quarter but surrendered 23 fourth-quarter points to lose, 30-23.

"All the losses were tough, but losing down there [6-3], I left the field with a feeling that we deserved to win," Burnett said.

Without question, this is the Ravens' best chance for victory. In their first two seasons in Baltimore, the Ravens had an offense that could compete with Jacksonville's, including receivers Michael Jackson and Derrick Alexander and quarterback Vinny Testaverde.

But the Ravens also had cornerbacks Antonio Langham, Issac Booth and linebackers Craig Powell and Mike Caldwell, who were no match for receivers Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell.

And then, in the past two years, the Ravens got better on defense but had trash-heap players on offense named Justin Armour, Stoney Case, Aaron Pierce and Lovett Purnell.

Again, there wasn't a lot to work with.

But finally, the Ravens are balanced. They have impact players on offense such as Tony Banks, Shannon Sharpe and Qadry Ismail, and on defense in Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware and Michael McCrary. They have two cornerbacks, Duane Starks and Chris McAlister, whom they drafted to match up with Smith and McCardell.

And the Ravens no longer have cornerback DeRon Jenkins, whom McCardell and Smith used and abused often in this series.

The time is right for a victory. Jacksonville Pro Bowl safety Carnell Lake is out for the season with a broken foot, and Pro Bowl right offensive tackles Leon Searcy is gone until November with a torn quadriceps muscle.

All-World left offensive tackle Tony Boselli is not 100 percent from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee suffered near the end of last season, and running back Fred Taylor is questionable with a strained medial collateral ligament in his right knee.

But the Ravens aren't feeling sympathy; they're just hungry for a victory over the Jaguars, who have punished the Ravens with long passes over the middle repeatedly during the years.

"I feel for them because I've been there with the injuries," Burnett said. "But we got our own things going on right here. We're confident, walking with a little swagger right now. You need a little of that. We're not overconfident, just in the right frame of mind."

"If there is one team we want to beat, it's Jacksonville," Sharpe said. "If we beat them, then it's a step up. That's it."

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